shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the
freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for
a redress of grievances.
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Brief History of the Bill of Rights
and the First Amendment
first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States became
known as the Bill of Rights because they contained freedoms that
Americans held to be their inalienable rights. So important were
these rights that several states insisted on a promise of amendments
guaranteeing individual rights before they would ratify
The Bill of
Rights, ratified in 1791, was the result of more than a century
of experience with rights in America and many centuries before that
in England. The major British precursors to the Bill of Rights are:
Magna Carta (1215).
In 1215, a group of English barons, tired of heavy taxes and arbitrary
actions by the king, forced King John to sign the Magna Carta
(Latin for great charter). It guaranteed such fundamental
rights as trial by jury and due process of law, a requirement
that government be fair in its actions. Originally, these rights
applied only to noblemen, but over time they were extended to
all English people. The Magna Carta established the principle
that the monarch's power is not absolute.
of Right (1628). The
monarchs of England did not always respect the Magna Carta in
the 400 years that followed its signing. Parliament, the English
legislature, gradually grew in influence. In 1628, Parliament
refused to approve more taxes until King Charles I signed the
Petition of Right, which prohibited the monarch from arresting
people unlawfully and housing troops in private homes without
the owners consent.
of Rights (1689). Before William and Mary could
take the British throne, a condition of their rule was agreement
to an act of Parliament in 1689 known as the Bill of Rights. It
guaranteed the right of British subjects to petition the king
and to bear arms. It prohibited excessive bails and fines and
cruel and unusual punishment. This British Bill of Rights
protected far fewer individual rights than the American
Bill of Rights adopted a century later. Also, the British
Bill of Rights was a statute, part of everyday lawmaking
and could be changed easily rather than Americas
constitutional amendments, part of the most important, most fundamental
legal document of the land.
crucial to Americas founding. Because their rights in England
were threatened, many future Americans left their homeland to form
new colonies in a strange land. And because their rights were threatened,
the colonists declared independence from England and created a new
nation to secure those rights.
Americans built on their English heritage when developing rights
in the new land, many colonies before 1689 had laws that far exceeded
the scope of the English Bill of Rights. Rhode Island, established
in 1636, was the first American colony to recognize freedom of conscience.
In 1641, Massachusetts Bay enacted the Massachusetts
Body of Liberties, the first detailed protection of rights in
America. Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics, but its
citizens extended the right of religious
toleration (1649) to other Christians as well.
In June 1776,
Virginia adopted a new constitution, prefaced by a declaration of
rights including many that would later appear in the U.S. Bill of
Rights. The Virginia
Declaration of Rights, served as a model for eight of the 12
other states that adopted new constitutions during the revolutionary
While the new
state governments protected individual rights, the Articles
of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States,
did not. The weak national government under the Articles of Confederation
created many problems. In 1787, these problems finally led to a
convention to draft a new charter for the national government, the
of the United States. Lack of a bill of rights became the main
reason many people opposed the Constitution.
When New Hampshire
became the necessary ninth state to ratify it, the Constitution
went into effect on June 21, 1788. Ratification was achieved only
through the promise of amendments to protect individual rights.
Congressional debates over the Bill of Rights drafted by James Madison,
then a U.S. representative from Virginia, were, in Madisons
words, extremely difficult and fatiguing. Members of
Congress challenged each other to duels at one passionate point
in the debates. Congress submitted a bill of rights with 12 amendments
to the states for ratification in September 1789. Two were not ratified:
one changing the apportionment of Congress and the other forbidding
congressional pay raises to take effect until after the next election.
(This latter amendment was ratified in 1992 as the 27th Amendment
to the Constitution.)
On Dec. 15,
1791, Virginia ratified the 10 amendments. This satisfied the requirement
of approval by three-fourths of the states, and the Bill
of Rights became part of the law of the land.
the Bill of Rights only limited the national government and did
not apply to the states. But after the fourteenth Amendment was
ratified in 1868, the Supreme Court began applying the provisions
of the Bill of Rights one by one to the states. In
1925, the Supreme Court ruled that no
state or local government could deny its citizens free-speech and
free-press rights protected by the First Amendment.
the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment
protects rights essential to democratic government and those rights
Americans hold most dear: freedom of religion, of speech, of the
press, of assembly and of petition.
The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide (Linda Monk, Close Up
Foundation, 1991) included in this brief history of the First Amendment
are reprinted with permission of the Close Up Foundation.